Anthony Albanese backs away from free RATs pledge as Australia records another 44 COVID-19 deaths

Mr Albanese said in January that Australians would get access to a “limited” number of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests (RATs) for free under Medicare after the government announced concession card holders would be able to access 10 free RATs over a three-month period.

The Opposition leader’s pledge came at a time when the Omicron variant outbreak hit Australia’s east coast, and

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But the situation has now changed, Mr Albanese told reporters on Saturday.

“Times have changed and what we would do is consider the health advice at the time,” Mr Albanese said.

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It comes as Australia has recorded another 44 COVID-19-related deaths and more than 42,000 new virus cases.

NSW reported 19 fatalities; there were nine in Victoria, six in Western Australia, five in Queensland, two in South Australia, two in Tasmania, and one in the ACT on Saturday.

A further 11,671 new COVID-19 cases were recorded in NSW, Victoria reported 9,365 new infections, there were 9,243 in Western Australia, 6,662 in Queensland, 3,304 in South Australia, 1,053 in the ACT, 903 in Tasmania, and 298 in the Northern Territory .

Some 1,481 patients with the virus are in NSW hospitals, including 54 in intensive care units (ICU), while 494 people are hospitalized in Victoria, including 35 in ICU.

In Queensland, 454 people in hospital have COVID-19, including 12 in ICU, and 48 are hospitalized with the virus in Tasmania, including one in ICU.

Sixty-six people with COVID-19 are hospitalized in the ACT, including five in ICU, and 275 are in Western Australia hospitals, including 11 in ICU.

Some 214 patients with COVID-19 are hospitalized in South Australia, including 13 in ICU, and 36 people with the virus are in Northern Territory hospitals.

The figures come as health authorities turn their attention to broader vaccination targets after the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.

Meanwhile, Labor leader Bill Shorten has tested positive for COVID-19. Mr Shorten made the announcement on Twitter on Saturday morning.

teen immunizations

In NSW, pharmacies will join a reinvigorated plan for adolescent immunizations for the nearly 80,000 students who missed out on shots when schools were closed during the pandemic.

Authorities will offer human papillomavirus virus and diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis shots for people aged 12 and over, as well as meningococcal jabs to those aged 14 and over.

The vaccine push in NSW is on top of a call by health experts for Australians to get their flu jabs as hospitals prepare for a winter influx of flu and COVID-19 patients.

Authorities have been predicting a particularly bad flu season after two years of the illness being suppressed by restrictions on international travel and social distancing measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

No deaths were recorded from the flu last year but vaccination coverage also dropped, leaving people vulnerable to new influenza strains.

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In 2019 – the last winter before the pandemic – more than 313,000 flu cases were reported in Australia and 902 people died.

NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said nearly 80,000 NSW students missed out on routine vaccinations in 2020 and 2021 due to school closures.

Health workers are trying to play catch-up through school-based programs.

“To make it easier for these students to get up to date with their immunizations, we are now making routine NSW government-funded adolescent vaccinations accessible through local pharmacies across NSW,” Dr Chant said.

She said the vaccines will help teenagers but also the population, as more people vaccinated against a disease reduces the spread.

Scott Morrison won’t back inquiry into COVID-19 response

Prime Minister Scott Morrison won’t back a royal commission into Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Asked repeatedly on Friday if he would support the probe, Mr Morrison instead pointed to the now-concluded Senate parliamentary committee hearings.

“Our [federal government] experts have been available to that inquiry each and every time,” Mr Morrison said.

Last month, the Senate committee on COVID-19 called for a royal commission into the government’s pandemic response.

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“We think the government’s response has been characterized by a failure to be prepared, a failure to take responsibility and then a failure to get it right,” chair and Labor senator Katy Gallagher said in April.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese on Friday backed calls for an inquiry.

“I cannot envisage a situation in which whoever wins government wouldn’t want to examine the once-in-a-century pandemic and the response,” Mr Albanese said.

“We have to examine it so that we learn the lessons.”

While Mr Albanese said it shouldn’t be a “political exercise”, it would at times become political as it set its sights on the Morrison government’s response.

Mr Morrison on Friday said the pandemic was still going, with new variants of the virus continuing to emerge.

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